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One woman's poissonnerie

Published 24 March 1996
Style Magazine
142nd article

Those were the days: Alfred Lynch, Kathleen Breck and Michael Winner on location for West 11. Julie Christie does a screen test for West 11 for Michael Winner, above

There are restaurants you pass, year after year, but which you never enter. So I was pleased when the famous actress Kathleen Breck invited me to lunch at Poissonnerie de l'Avenue, Chelsea, a restaurant I have ignored all my life! "Famous actress?" I hear you say, "Kathleen Breck!" Well, nearly. In 1962 I tested three girls for the lead in a film called West 11. One of these was Miss Breck, another was Julie Christie, and another whose name I have forgotten. When the tests came on the screen, I said: "It's Julie Christie, no doubt at all!" The producer turned to me and said: "She's a B-picture actress, who'd want her?" "I would," I said. "Who'd want to sleep with her?" he asked incredulously. "I would," I replied cheerfully. The same man turned down Sean Connery for the other lead because he, too, was a B-picture actor, and James Mason for the villain because he was past it.

We ended up with Alfred Lynch (an excellent actor but not Sean Connery), Kathleen Breck (an excellent actress but not Julie Christie) and Eric Portman, who was so good I didn't mind. Miss Breck went on to better things. She quit acting, found a handsome and rich husband, and settled down to a delightful life with Allan Scott. He's both a famous screenwriter and the owner of a legendary Scotch whisky company. Kathleen is a fan of Poissonnerie de l'Avenue, and, having spent six weeks in Los Angeles, was looking forward to some good food. In particular, their grilled dover sole. I entered the premises and thought how extraordinarily dull it looked. I had impressed upon Miss Breck the importance of having a large table well enough away from other diners. Kathleen had done well. At the next table Mary Quant turned up, so it was a real 1960s reunion! The food was remarkably good even though two things I wanted, deep-fried anchovy and whitebait, were off. I had langoustine, Kathleen had field mushrooms with polenta. We both had the grilled sole. The carrot puree was so exceptional I ordered seconds. Something I have never done before with carrots!

I was obviously impressed because, two days later, I suggested Vanessa went there for dinner with me. This entailed a typical Winner conversation with the "second head waiter", Mr Alberto Ferreira. "Can I have the same table I had with Mrs Scott?" I asked. "I am afraid that one's taken," said Mr Ferreira. "I'll give you one just as good." "Just as good are words that mean nothing to me," I said. "I go to tables, not to restaurants. What about the table Mary Quant had?" "That's taken, too," said Mr Ferreira. "But I promise you the table you have will be just as good." "Will it be just as large?" I asked. "Almost," said Mr Ferreira. "Almost is not enough," I said. "Will it be exactly as large?" Mr Ferreira said it would be. I thought to myself, people keep asking me why I don't open a restaurant? The answer is simple. Who on earth would want to own a restaurant if someone like me could turn up? On my evening visit I found the Poissonnerie even duller. Everybody there was extremely respectable, and I'm sure individually I would have thought them deeply charming. A great many said they were avid readers of this very page. But collectively I found them overpowering.

This time I started with some smallish fried sardines - good, not spectacular. Followed by the best salmon fishcakes I have ever eaten. Again, I ordered a second portion of the carrot puree. I finished with oeufs a la neige, which were okay. I phoned later to check Mr Ferreira's name, accuracy being the guide word of my life. "I hope you're not going to get me into trouble," he said. "Not at all," I replied. "I thought you were very good." Somewhat reluctantly, Mr Ferreira spelt his name. "What is your position?" I asked. "Second head waiter," he said. "Who is the head waiter?" I continued. "Manuel," said Alberto. "Why do you think he didn't talk to me?" I asked. "No idea," said Alberto. I guess Manuel was either (a) frightened, (b) a man of extraordinary good sense, or (c) couldn't be bothered. Either way, and excellent as it is, I am not going to put the Poissonnerie on my regular list because of its ambience. I wish they'd open up near me in Kensington with brighter decor. Don't get me wrong, I like old-fashioned. You can't get more old-fashioned than Wilton's. But there you see Mrs Thatcher. Oddly, I've always considered that a plus!